A restructure of Hermiston’s water and sewer rates that angered residents last year finished its first full year on March 1, and revenues have been in line with projections.
“We should hit right at about what we budgeted for the fiscal year,” Assistant City Manager Mark Morgan said.
The city’s fiscal year runs from July 1 to June 30, while the rate increase took place in March. But running the numbers for the current fiscal year shows that the city budgeted $9,996,658 for water and sewer revenue in the 2019-20 fiscal year and earned $6,512,106 of that by Feb. 28, putting it on track to meet budget by the end of June.
During the 2018-19 fiscal year, the city budgeted $6,856,938 in revenues and received $6,862,294. Almost all of the city’s revenue for water and sewer — minus $186,661 in connection fees, interest and other miscellaneous income — came from customers’ water and sewer bills.
The additional $3.1 million earned in 2019-20 will pay for water and sewer projects on the city’s capital improvement plan, ranging from replacing century-old water pipes to upgrading lift stations and pumps.
Morgan said since the city had built its new wastewater treatment plant in 2014, too much of the city’s water and sewer revenue had been going toward debt service to afford needed capital projects. What “sealed the deal,” he said, was when the city ended up having to take out a loan to pay the $1.2 million cost of dredging the sewage out of its wastewater lagoons, something that needs to be done about every 15 years to keep them from overflowing.
“We said, it’s crazy that we don’t have enough money for these basic things,” he said.
So the city worked with its engineers from Anderson Perry & Associates to revamp its rate structure entirely, basing the system more heavily on usage so that the people who put the most strain on the system pay the most. The change applied to both water and sewer rates.
“Probably from a percentage standpoint, peoples’ sewer cost went up higher than their water, but nobody ever calls it their sewer bill,” Morgan said.
The median Hermiston water customer — the one in the middle of a lineup from largest to smallest user in town — used 3,600 gallons of water in January 2019 and 32,400 gallons in August, which makes it hard to talk about the “average” amount a customer’s bill went up, even before factoring in that people also use different amounts of water in different years depending on weather.
Looking at just water, not sewer, the median user would have paid $46.57 for 32,400 gallons of water in August and $20.72 for 3,600 in January under the 2018 rates. Under the March 2019-March 2020 rates, the same user would pay $98.40 for 32,400 gallons and $31.80 for 3,600.
Flattened out over the course of a year, Morgan said they paid about $16 per month more for water and $20 more per month for sewer. Another dollar or two will be added to their monthly bill now, as a built-in automatic increase for inflation bumped up water and sewer rates 1.8% at the beginning of this month.
When residents flocked to city hall last summer to protest the increased water and sewer rates, however, the ones who testified in front of the city council often told stories of much higher increases than average — sometimes double or triple what they had been used to paying. They shared how the increase had taxed their budget and turned their lawns brown.
“Seniors are having to choose between medications or water,” resident Larry Smith told the council at the time.
Morgan acknowledged that in a usage-based system, the people using more than the median user would have seen their bills increase more than the calculations above.
He also said it was important to take anecdotal evidence with a grain of salt, highlighting one example where he said he checked a customer’s public claim their bill had tripled from July to August, only to find that the customer had not paid their July bill and therefore that amount had been added to their August bill.
As water and sewer rates increased, usage in the city went down. July is the city’s heaviest water usage month, and in July 2018 customers used 262 million gallons, while using 219 million gallons in July 2019 after the rate increase.
Morgan said some of that was residents conserving water in their own homes. In other cases, some organizations and government entities with large fields and lawns had switched from using potable city water for irrigation to using water rights they held but had not been using.
When customers came in to city hall to complain about the rate increase, Morgan said he and other city staff often sat down with them to analyze their hour-by-hour water usage on the EyeOnWater app, which is free to all customers. He said in many cases, they were able to show the customer how to greatly reduce their irrigation costs in the summer by being more strategic.
Some people didn’t realize their sprinklers were running more than once during the night, he said, while others were watering shaded “zones” in their yard for the same amount of time as the areas in direct sunlight needed. One customer hadn’t noticed a sprinkler head had been broken so that it fed straight into their crawl space instead of watering their lawn.
“A lot of folks weren’t familiar with their automatic sprinkler system,” Morgan said. “The EyeOnWater app would show they were running their system the exact same in August when it’s 100 degrees as in April when it’s cool and rainy.”
He urged people to get to know their system and their lawn to avoid such water-wasting mistakes. If people “stress” their lawn a little in the spring, and then slowly turn up their watering over the summer as the heat rises, Morgan said, then the grass will need less water in August because it grew deeper roots in the spring.
“Don’t flood your lawn in April,” he said.
The EyeOnWater app can also help catch leaks, by alerting people if they have a certain amount of water running 24/7. Morgan, for example, had a spigot that hadn’t quite been turned off all the way, and the app notified him that he had an 8 gallon per hour leak somewhere.
“Those add up to hundreds of gallons a month,” he said.
Now that the city has a year of bills under the new water rates to work with, customers can sign up for a budget-billing plan. The plan doesn’t give a discount on water, but makes it easier for a customer to budget by giving them a flat rate per month to pay, calculated by their average usage over the past 12 months.
For more information about water and sewer rates, customers can call the utility billing department at 541-567-5521, visit their temporary offices at 215 E. Gladys Avenue or visit hermiston.or.us.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story misstated the amount of miscellaneous water and sewer income the city brought in in 2018-2019.